March 17, 2017
In contrast to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) currently allows the purchase of almost any food. This paper reconsiders the role of two forms of limiting choice in SNAP. Using economic theory, descriptive analysis of survey data, and discussion of random assignment evaluation evidence from the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer for Children Demonstration, the paper argues that because households can substitute cash for SNAP, banning the use of SNAP for less nutritionally desirable foods (e.g., soda, candy) is unlikely to have a large impact. By contrast, because many households currently consume so little of more nutritionally desirable foods (e.g., whole grains, fruits, and vegetables), requiring that some portion of SNAP benefits be spent on those foods is likely to improve dietary intake. Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer for Children Demonstration impact estimates are consistent with this conjecture. Furthermore, these data and evidence from the Healthy Incentives Pilot implementation suggest that such a policy can be feasibly integrated into existing operational processes.